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Geek Gone Wild, or Management Gone Witch Hunting? – Geek Gap Article

First, of all, full disclosure: this is coming from Bill, the geek part of the Geek Gap writing duo. So take what I’m saying with a grain of techie salt. Minda will weigh in next time for the suit view.

There have been many articles in the media about the Terry Childs case. You know, the IT administrator for the City of San Francisco who supposedly went nuts, shut down the cities’ systems, locked everyone out of the network, and went to jail rather than give his bosses the passwords. Or at least that’s how the media – and the courts – have portrayed him. But it seems that’s far from the truth.

There’s lots more to the story, most of which has been left out of most public descriptions. But from everything I’ve read, this is almost a classic tale of Geek vs. Suit, complete with lack of trust, respect, and communication. Here’s a brief – as brief as I can make it – run down of the pertinent facts:

Who’s this Terry Childs guy?

Terry Childs is what can easily be labelled an “uber-geek.” He’s worked as a network engineer for more than the last 20 years at various companies, including Kinkos, Mattel and EarthLink. He also happens to be one of only about 15,000 CCIE’s (Cisco Certified Internetworking Engineer) in the world, the test for which 90+ percent – yes, more than 9 out of 10 – applicants fail.

Childs worked as a member of the San Francisco DTIS (Department of Technology, Information Services), the group that built and managed the city’s networks under his control. In the course of his job over the past five years, he designed and built the FiberWAN, almost single-handedly creating a complex city-wide network on fiber interconnects and MPLS, forming the core of all city services. While all the network engineers in DTIS did not report directly to him, they all deferred to him on almost all questions about how the network was maintained (he is still listed as the one person responsible for the network, according to a current Whois query. They may not even know how to change it.). He’s also the author of a huge 3-volume technical work titled “MPLS VPN fiberwan computer program design and configuration,” the second edition of which was just released the beginning of 2008. He was, certainly,  the city’s most experienced and advanced network administrator. He was extremely proud of his work, and took it very seriously.

So much so that he considered his work to be that of an artist. He applied for a copyright for the network design as technical artistry – the application for which his managers then insisted he retract. They obviously did not view his work so much as artistry, but, from the fairly disrespectful way they’ve treated and spoken about him, more as maintenance work. The people he reported to – non-technical managerial types – payed almost no attention to what he did day to day, leaving him to function practically independently. Seems he more than rose to the occasion, setting up control systems in spaces his management did not even know (or seem to WANT to know) existed.

So what did he do?

According to the news reports, he – in the words of SF Mayor Gavin Newsom – became a “rogue employee that got a bit maniacal,” locking everyone out of the city network and refusing to give anyone the password. The prosecution claims he “was watching everything on the network, including information regarding city government, the police, and private emails between government officials.”

They also accused him of a variety of things that may sound a bit dark, at least to the non-technical readers. He’s been accused of setting up access to the core devices that was only accessible from one terminal at the Hall of Justice; photographing his recently promoted manager who was in the process of removing devices from desks in an unannounced, after-hours audit; set the routers to self-destruct in the event of a reboot; stored all his data on encrypted devices; set up access points at various other locations; had in his possession password lists of other users; and diagrams and configs of the network were found at his house.

So is he guilty of something?

Not sure how a network admin could really do his job properly unless he WAS pretty much watching everything, but this is far from the only muddled sounding statement against him. In looking at the facts at the root of things, all is not so cut and dried – provided you can even find them in the slushstorm of buzzwords and assumptions being thrown around by his managers, the prosecution, and most of the news media.

Finding any info on this case in the media that isn’t slanted towards the “Rogue Admin” point of view is almost non-existent. However, Paul Venezia, writing for PC World, is one of the few who have done an excellent job in getting to the real facts. He posted an excellent rebuttal of all these supposed “illegal activities” that showed he was pretty much just doing his job as a highly trained, very thorough, and careful (and perhaps justifiably slightly paranoid) IT admin.

Venezia also has an excellent overview of the technical aspects of this case for the non-technical readers (send this to your suit colleagues and/or boss if you think it’s needed) on his blog.

There is definitely a lot of sympathy for this poor sap of an admin among the world of tech workers. I think it’s because techies are so familiar with the backlash of the Geek Gap, especially when it’s happened to them – just not as badly as it has for Terry Childs. There’s basically a feeling that the suits almost always misunderstand what techies actually do, and don’t appreciate the level of complexity in the work.

Probably what any geek should take from this sad tale is make sure you have your own flank covered. Contrary to the general opinion of the non-techie management, this is a wake-up call for all tech workers out there, especially network admins. Don’t rely on just doing a good job, because your managers more than likely have no idea what it is you do, nor how it’s done, and when they go witch-hunting, you’ll look remarkably like a magic user to them. CYA, folks, CYA.

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